Following Charlottesville

I have struggled all weekend to comprehend what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia. So far, I’m written a draft of a poem in response to a vigil for love that took place at Scranton’s Courthouse Square last night, but the figurative language in that poem isn’t enough to comprehend this moment in American history. I am stuck by two images from this past weekend: the parade of torch-wielding Nazis that seized Charlottesville on Friday night and circled anti-fascist protestors, and the image of the car bulldozing the crowd on Saturday, specifically the sight of bodies flung mid-air from impact or rolling off of the car’s windshield and roof. These images are now part of American history, specifically its ugly racial history.

I spend a lot of time in the classroom talking about race and class, especially when I teach African American Lit or American Lit, and though I know the history, it is still difficult to comprehend that the neo-Nazi movement is this empowered in 2017. Enough criticism has already been made about Trump’s response to the violence, namely that he failed to condemn white supremacists and instead insisted that this is an issue on “all sides.” However, anyone who has been following U.S. politics or the Trump campaign over the last year knew we were headed for this moment. For decades, at least since Nixon’s Southern Strategy, one political party has used dog whistles and race-baiting to seize the votes of the white working-class by constantly creating a boogeyman and other. Trump was a lot more upfront about this, with all of the talk about building a wall and encouraging his supporters to rough up Black Lives Matters protestors at his rallies. Then came the appointments of people like Bannon and Miller to his administration.

At this moment, white supremacists are promising to return to Charlottesville. What happens next is unknown. At the very least, the country is having a  serious conversation about the deep racial and class divides that exist. Some GOP senators, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Orrin Hatch, have called out the president for not labeling the groups as white supremacists. Cruz even urged the Justice Department to open an investigation. Those words are good, but the GOP needs to more forcefully stand up to the president and demand that Bannon, Miller, and Gorka all be removed from this administration, due to their ties to white supremacists and their public statements. They also need to end the anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-Islamic rhetoric. Furthermore, they should seriously consider urging any sane administration officials that exist to invoke the 25th amendment and remove Trump from office. This country’s divide is deepening to the point that his pussyfooting with white supremacist groups and refusal to condemn them could very well lead to incidents worse than Charlottesville. The ugly racial history is not new, but Trump’s campaign and now his administration have created enough space for white supremacists to feel emboldened.

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RIP, Romero

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As a kid, I used to watch horror movies with my dad, typically on Friday evenings, rented from Blockbuster. One of his favorites was Night of the Living Dead, and I credit that initial viewing experience for getting me into horror. There was so much about the movie that I loved and still love, especially the opening, when Barbara (Judith O’Dea) stumbles around the graveyard and encounters the film’s first zombie. Of course, there is also that famous “They’re coming to get you, Barbara” line, one of the most classic quotes in any horror movie. After seeing that movie as a boy, I was hooked.

Romero’s work resonated with me a lot more when I grew older. Upon first viewing, I didn’t realize the significance of Romero choosing a black male lead, Duane Jones, for Night of the Living Dead in the late 1960s, or the significance of that final shot, when Ben is shot in the head by redneck vigilantes and then his body is burned. In college, I hung a poster on my dorm room wall of the young zombie girl who killed her parents in the film. Imagine a movie with that type of scene hitting in the 1960s!

I didn’t see Dawn of the Dead until college, but I was struck by its campiness and cartoonishness (the blue zombie make-up and bright red blood) coupled with the not-so-subtle commentary on consumerism. However, my favorite installments in Romero’s zombie legacy may be Day of the Dead and Land of the Dead. The zombies are a lot scarier, smarter, and angrier, for one, but the social commentary pushes deeper and really makes us think about ways in which human beings are worse than the monster/other. Day of the Dead raises the question  whether or not human beings would be able to survive an apocalypse-like scenario without killing each other or resorting to militarism or fascism, and Land of the Dead railed against the 1 percenters before Occupy Wall Streeters ever pitched tens in Zuccotti Park. It was one of the perfect films for the Bush age, shortly before the economic crash and bailout. Diary of the Dead is worth watching, too, and I only wish that we could witness a final installment in Romero’s zombie canon, especially in the Trump-age.

Romero is part of an important wave of American horror movie filmmakers from the 1960s and 1970s, the likes of which also included Wes Craven, Tobe Hopper, John Carpenter, among others, who realized, as Mary Shelley did while penning Frankenstein, that horror is a wonderful vehicle for exploring social commentary. As I noted in another blog post, horror is undergoing a wonderful revival now, and it is mostly thanks to independent filmmakers and indie studios like A24. However, if it wasn’t for films like Night of the Living Dead, shot in Western, PA. on a shoestring budget, with no household names, the horror films generating buzz today probably wouldn’t have been possible. Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and other small-budget films from that time caused studios to take risks and made them realize there is an audience out there for smart, boundary-pushing horror movies.

I’ll forever be grateful to my dad for getting me into horror, specifically through Romero’s work. A few months ago, Gravel published a poem I wrote about Night of the Living Dead. In honor of the filmmaker, I’ll share it again. Check it out here.

 

 

 

 

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Summer Events/Readings

I hope that everyone is enjoying mid-summer! I’m going to be doing a few events around northeastern, Pennsylvania that I wanted to share. If you’re local, I hope that you can attend some of these.

Saturday, July 22 7 P.M.

Just Words: An Evening with NEPA Poets

Loose Leaf Pages Bookstore, Honesdale

I will be reading with Daryl Sznyter and Nancy Dymond.

Facebook event page here.

Saturday, July 29 9-3 p.m.

2017 Authorfest at the Dorflinger Factory Museum

I will be on a poetry panel in the morning and then selling books.

This is a free event and a means to network and meet other writers.

Aug. 4-5 Pennsylvania Writers Conference at Wilkes University

I will be on a panel entitled Pressing the Issue: Working with an Independent Press.

Our panel actually runs both days! Natasha Tretheway will give the keynote address on Saturday evening.

For more info or to register, go here.

So, if you’re in NEPA, there are a lot of literary events coming up. I hope that you can attend! Special sidenote: I really encourage people to shop at Loose Leaf Pages in Honesdale. Let’s give this new independent bookstore and tea house all the support that we can!

 

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horror fans

I thought I would follow up my recent post about contemporary American horror movies  by sharing this new list from Lit Hub called “10 Works of Literary Horror You Should Read.”  The author, Emily Temple, doesn’t really try to define the term “literary horror” and admits it may not be possible. She mentions the importance of elevated prose, but even that term can be hard to define.

A number of books that made the list I’ve read, and I ordered a few that I haven’t, including A Head Full of Ghosts, which is on my list to read next. Of this list, Let the Right One In and House of Leaves (which I just finished) are my favorite. Let the Right One In Takes every single vampire trope and turns it upside down. The book, like a lot of great horror, deals with otherness even more so than the film adaptation, which I also recommend. I’m teaching the book and film when I teach Horror Film and Lit next academic year.

House of Leaves reminds me of Infinite Jest in so many ways. Like David Foster Wallace’s work, it has so many fractured narratives and tells even more of the story through exhaustive, extensive footnotes. However, unlike Infinite Jest, House of Leaves really plays with the physical structure of a book, what it looks like, how we read it, how text and white space are used. The book is challenging, but well worth the read. It’s a post-modern ghost story that plays with all of the conventions, but it’s also a love story.

I would add one more book to this list,, Ring by Koji Suzuki, which spawned the very famous movie and the J-horror trend. The book differs in many ways from the American film adaptation. It deals a lot more with how we share information and what effect that has, beyond the distribution of a disturbing video tape that is one of the main narrative arcs. The novel offers a broader critique of 24-7 news cycles, tabloids, and consumer culture. Though the book was published in 2004, it feels increasingly relevant for the social media age that we live in.

 

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The American Horror Revival

Over the last several months, I’ve been working on curriculum for a horror literature and film adaptation class, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of film theory articles and essays on horror, and while doing so, I’ve been musing about all of the recent interesting, memorable horror movies that have come out in the last two-three years. There is the old theory that horror does well during periods of national anxiety. Stephen King talks about this in his collection of essays on the genre entitled Danse Macabre. Probably the easiest example of think of is the last great period in American horror, the 1960s/1970s, which saw the releases of Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, Halloween, The Exorcist, Jaws, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others. Out of all the films, I find Texas Chainsaw the most interesting, and upon re-watching it recently, I found it even more brilliant and more disturbing. I also realize now why the film is cited so much in countless essays on the genre. The low-budget film has no soundtrack, so instead, the viewer is confronted with sounds of flies buzzing, reports of violent stabbings or shootings that come through the radio in various scenes, and of course, Leatherface’s chainsaw. It is one of the most apocalyptic films I can name, and one that upends the norms for the horror genre, in that the traditional social order is not re-established by the conclusion. Sure, Sally lives, but Leatherface is not conquered, nor is his sadistic family. They all live, and the end shot is Leatherface doing a mad, frantic dance with his chainsaw beneath a blazing Texas sun. If there ever was an apt metaphor for the violence, upheaval and chaos of the 1960s/1970s, that film is it.

This brings me to the point I want to make: the American horror film genre is undergoing a renaissance right now, and it’s worth attention. Like Texas Chainsaw, Halloween, and Night of the Living Dead, many of the more interesting contemporary American horror films are indies. Specifically, I am thinking of It Follows, The Witch, Get Out, and the latest, It Comes at Night.

Like their predecessors from the 1960s and 1970s, the films also have social and political undercurrents. 2014’s It Follows deals with the perils of adolescent sex, and it can be viewed through a conservative or liberal lens, depending on your own personal political bend. 2015’s The Witch, set in Puritan New England, feels even more relevant in the era of Trump and the Women’s March because it deals with the power of female sexuality. Beyond that, however, it is one of the most atmospheric films I have seen in recent memory. This year’s Get Out is the biggest success of any of these films, and it smashed records for a black director. It deals with race in a nuanced way and addresses the hypocrisy sometimes evident in white progressives who often fashion themselves open-minded and liberal.

This brings me to the newest film of the bunch, It Comes at Night. After viewing it last night, I’m still thinking about it and frustrated by aspects of it. The film was released by A24 studios, which also released The Witch and 2016’s The Green Room, which  I should include on this list, because, like the other films, it deals with the horror that comes from within/humanity. Like those other films, It Comes at Night is atmospheric and does not rely on blood and guts. The film is primarily set in a house and follows a family of three in a post-apocalyptic world. They wear gas masks, though we’re never sure why, if there is some contagion in the air. We don’t even know why society collapsed. We’re dropped in the middle of of everything. The family encounters another family of three, and by the conclusion, everyone turns on each other, raising questions about human nature and if we’d  be able to pull together and survive if there was some global disaster. Parts of the film do capture the current moment in American society, especially our fear of the other, be it immigrants or people who may hold different viewpoints than us. You can even view the symbolism of the gas masks as a warning of some climate change catastrophe that is yet to come.

The film does not rely on gotch-ya scares, but instead the tone is set through creaky floorboards, sprawling shots of the forest surrounding the house, which also feels suffocating, and repeating images of a red door, which seems to symbolize the bridge between death and life. For the most part, we see everything through 17-year-old Travis’ (Kelvin Harris Jr.) eyes. We also witness his dreams, which are visceral and include boils and puss on his hands, black goo spewing from his mouth, and visions of his dead grandfather, Bud. This calls to question whether or not Travis is infected, and whether or not there is actually an illness, or if Travis’ father, Paul (Joel Edgerton), merely uses that fear to keep everyone in line.

It Comes at Night is a film that will stay with you after the credits conclude, and it is forceful in its statements about human violence. That said, I did need a little more to go on, especially regarding the contagion, if it was even real. The conclusion, meanwhile, can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I’m not going to give it away here because the film builds to it so well, beat by beat.

It Comes at Night follows a pattern, a new wave in American horror, one that doesn’t rely on blood, guts, and gore, but rather on establishing tone, mood, and atmosphere and not having a huge budget to do so. All of these films have a social and political undercurrent, and in that regard, they also mirror the last great wave of American horror cinema. There is something happening right now in the American horror film genre, and it’s worth paying attention to, especially since the future of the American political system, or the planet, for that matter, is uncertain.

 

 

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Sharing a little bit of news

It’s been a while, and as summer begins, I’ve had my nose in books, reading, writing, and even working on some new curriculum, too. That said, I want to share some good news.

First, I was just informed by the managing editor of Crab Orchrad Review, that my latest book of poems, Waiting for the Dead to Speak, won the 2017 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award for poetry! As part of the award, I will be attending a literary festival at the university to partake in  panel and reading!

Some other news: many thanks to Jason Allen for this thoughtful review of my work that he published in the new issue of The Paterson Literary Review. You can read it here.

Lastly, Two Hawks Quarterly published two of my poems in the most recent issue, which you can read here.

 

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In Consideration of M.F.A. Programs, Contemporary American Poetry, Working workshops

Recently, I had the chance to interview Ray Hammond, editor of the New York Quarterly and NYQ Books, for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. More specifically, we talked about his book, Poetic Amusement, which addresses the proliferation of M.F.A. programs, writing workshops, and creative writing departments. We also talked about American poetry in the age of Trump. I think it is well-worth the read, as Ray offers some honest opinions about the effectiveness of writing workshops and the publish or perish mindset that is part of creative writing departments.

Full disclosure: I completed my M.F.A. in 2010, and for me, it was a worthwhile experience that gave me the space and time to write, as well as a community of writers; that said, I do think there are some serious points to consider in this interview.

Click here to read the interview.

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